Leadership Counts

As the role of information technology manager develops into that of the chief information officer (CIO), soft skills become increasingly important. Foremost among these is leadership, and the ability to lead a team.

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By  Maddy Reddy Published  January 3, 2005

|~||~||~|CIOs are under more pressure than ever before as their role changes as rapidly as the technology their teams deploy. Rather than being a mere facilitator of IT services, the role of CIO now demands leadership and other business management skills.

Gartner Group, which released its Top 10 CIO priorities for the year at the end of 2004 (see box below) confirms this trend. Eight out of the listed ten priorities are not about technology. Instead, they focus on the intangibles such as communication, training, motivation, change, empowerment and delegation - traits and functions usually associated with CEOs and human resource managers rather than those with a technology background.

Leadership in any field is a complex process by which a person influences others to accomplish a mission, task or objective and directs the organisation in a way that makes it more cohesive and coherent. A person carries out this process by applying leadership attributes such as vision, belief, values, ethics, charisma, character, experience, emotional intelligence, adaptiveness and people skills.

Although the position of manager gives an individual the authority to accomplish certain tasks and objectives in an organisation, the designation of CIO does not necessarily make a CIO a leader - it simply puts him or her in charge of operational issues.

Leadership, on the other hand, makes people want to achieve high goals and objectives and think beyond their paid jobs. This can be particularly important in IT, where constant changes in technology and daily demands from various departments make work stressful and performance is typically measured by the number of times one fails i.e. downtime.

“If you take the money factor out, what motivates an IT employee is delegating them the job they enjoy doing; create a conducive working environment and the right working culture. If you can provide these three, then you can keep them motivated,” says Anura Boteju, regional development manager, information systems, Standard Chartered Bank, Middle East & South Asia.

To ensure that his IT staff stay motivated, ENOC recently earmarked US$13.6 million for its training programme for the next five years. It has also set up an ongoing nationals induction programme and a career path for them in order to create a consisent work culture among locals and expats.

According to V. Shankar Iyer, who serves as group CIO for ENOC's 30 divisions and 250 IT users, knowledge serves as an essential lubricant when it comes to leadership and motivation. “Technology skill or experience can be purchased or replaced. But its hard to replace [staff] with business knowledge and IT. We allocate 30% of our time and resources for retraining, unlearning and learning. Training is an ongoing process,” he says.

By carrying out training programme involving all departments and employees of all backgrounds, Aiyer believes the knowledge silos that exist in every company can be eliminated, thereby empowering every member of the team. “Background only creates the platform to have the right mix of analytic and managerial skills. It is not the only criteria why someone will differ,” he says.

“It is only what someone does, the management practices and the exposure he receives that makes the difference. You can be a lawyer or an accountant…and [still] perform as well as someone with a technical background,” Aiyer adds. ||**|||~||~||~|Nabil Rahmatalla, IT manager at the Qatar Petrochemical Company (QAPCO), adds that by creating a sense of belonging for all the employees, irrespective of their background, CIOs can not only motivate them to perform well but also retain them.

“Involvement of staff at all levels and participation in the decision-making is first and foremost the best incentive in keeping them motivated and rewarded. If they feel that they are constantly learning, being challenged and getting new experience, then they will not feel that their career is not stagnating,” he says.

While such training programmes and financial incentives may motivate and retain an employee, they don’t necessarily address fundamental issues such as communication. Although companies use tools such as e-mail, groupware, phones and face-to-face meetings, the issue comes in getting the message across.

Typically, the business side of an organisation understands the language of money, while the IT team talks only technology. By not translating this information in a meaningful and convincing way, to both parties CIOs could well risk their very job itself.

“Clear communication skills are critical. It’s all about a CIO’s ability to abstract complex technology issues into business issues [and vice versa] with some value. If he talks too much technology, or too much business, then he will neither meet the business expectations nor have enough delivery capability. A lot of CIOs here get into this techno babble to maintain their position - it’s almost like they are talking a cryptic language. That becomes their undoing. They need to be position themselves as a wedge to be recognised as a leader,” says Rajeev Lalwani, CIO at KPMG, Lower Gulf, UAE & Oman.

Ensuring that this corporate message envisioned in the board room is transmitted across to their team members is equally important says Standard Chartered’s Boteju. “CIOs have to be very clear in explaining to their team what exactly is expected; their job roles; their short term and long term goals and give them the bigger picture. Else his people may not stay for long - they could go back or look for `other jobs,” he says.

While it is still early days for the region’s CIOs, as many of them are still making the transistion from pure IT manager, the signs are good. For instance, QAPCO’s Rahmatalla believes the job is no longer about managing IT but the people behind it.

“IT jobs have evolved from being merely a data processing function. The evolution of the CIO position and the modern IT manager, now involves defining and managing change as well. Organisations expect CIOs to be there at the strategy formulation stage to plan and lead the transformation needed with IT and user resources to achieve the desired goals,” he says. “The qualities, personality and profile of the CIO/IT Manager have changed to reflect this.”

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Top 10, 2005 resolutions for the CIO:

1. Create alternative plans for the unpredictable year.
2. Decide whether they want to be technology managers or business managers with IT knowledge, and invest in the appropriate skills.
3. Use regulatory compliance demands to invest in related, strategic areas.
4. Get the IT staff media-ready and try to foster external public relations.
5. Drop ’on time and on budget’ as a key performance indicator for IT staff, noting that this a basic requirement. Set new performance indicators above and beyond that.
6. Get hands-on experience on some new key technologies.
7. Combat IT complexity by creating simplification policies.
8. Elevate business process thinking to the management level, by deciding the process first and applications second, for example.
9. Build a relationship and collaborate with the HR director on strategy for IT staff changes.
10. Critically review the capability of your IT organisation and it leaders.

Source: Gartner December 2004.
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